Sisterhood Blog

The Case Against 'Don't Worry, Be Happy'

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

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For the New Year, a Facebook friend wrote as her status, “My New Year’s resolution is to be Happy all Year!” That sounds lovely, I initially thought. It’s almost Oprah-ish, a vision for living one’s best life, joyously. Or perhaps it’s more like what Dennis Prager advocates — the idea that we all have a moral obligation to be happy in order to spread good feelings, rather than grumpiness, as we walk through world.

But then, I thought, maybe that’s a bit of an optimistic interpretation. I’m wondering if the “Don’t worry, be happy” philosophy that seems to be gaining in popularity actually has such a notable social-communal component. Certainly my kids do better when I’m in a good mood. But really, is that what this is all about? When people talk about the goal of living joyfully, is that a societal vision or just a personal one?

The Buddhist answer is that the only way to influence society is by changing ourselves. Since we cannot ever change another person, the theory goes, we should just focus on changing ourselves — and if the entire world did that, there would be world peace. But, with all due respect to Bu-Judaism, that is really not the Jewish answer. In Judaism, we are in fact urged to interfere in other people’s lives to change them for the better.

As in, if you see someone — human or animal — suffering under a yoke, you are not supposed to stand around and think to yourself, “That’s their journey”. No, we are told to act, to actually go and remove the other person’s yoke in order to alleviate their suffering.

I struggle with this dilemma often, and it came up for me very powerfully when I thought about my friend’s status update. The goal of happiness is arguably little more than a spiritual spin on what is effectively hedonism. Certainly the spiritual value of happiness can be profound — learning to let life’s little irritations pass you — but there is something ethically unsatisfying about it. After all, there is a moral value to getting upset sometimes. In the face of abuse, hunger, torture, inequality, and injustice, I would rather not be glued to a “be happy” mantra. Sometimes anger is the higher moral response. Sometimes, I do not want to let the world slide off my shoulders. Rather, I want to take it in, to feel it, to experience it, to be able to put myself in someone else’s shoes, even if those shoes are painful.

I can’t help but wonder, for example: Is Gilad Shalit happy? I can see that perhaps for someone in deep suffering, a resolution to be happy despite one’s surrounding can be a glorious goal. But for those of us who are free, I’m not sure. Perhaps our goal should actually be to get angry — angry enough to take action to save Gilad’s life.

I also think about Moshe Katsav’s rape victims. Katsav came so close to getting away scot free — then Attorney General Meni Mazuz did not believe the victim testimony, and offered Katsav a plea bargain with no jail time, and it was Katsav who ultimately rejected it to gamble on a trial. I think about what the victims would have gone through had the plea bargain been accepted, what would have happened to their lives and spirits knowing that their rapist was a free man living a luxurious life courtesy of the Israeli taxpayer. The victims needed people to care and to listen and to believe. Victims need people to take on their pain. So the willingness to feel another’s pain — to be unhappy at times, as it were — seems to me the higher moral goal.

And I do not accept the passivity of the notion that we cannot change other people. By caring, by sharing others’ experiences, and perhaps even taking uncomfortable and difficult steps on others’ behalf, we can change other people’s lives. As Ram Dass wrote in his preface to Stephen Levine’s classic book, “A Gradual Awakening”:

Again and again I am asked how I can justify sitting in meditation while there is so much suffering going on all about me. The intellectual answer is that the root of suffering is ignorance and that meditation is the best way of cutting the bonds of ignorance. But when confronted with a hungry child, the pains of physical illness, the intractable violence in others, or the fear of dying, such justifications sometimes seem dissatisfyingly abstract and hollow.

Indeed.


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